Grammar Checkers for Writing Assignments in Math Classes

For the past few years there has been lots of talk about including writing assignments in college math courses. Writing assignments have been part of my teaching for many years now, including calculus labs, QL classes, MathCEP professional problems, and the much feared UMTYMP Calc 3 project.

Writing in math classes is tremendously valuable because it is the one of the few times we ask students to synthesize information, not just repeat computations. As an added motivation, I often hear people in industry say, “One of the reasons we hire mathematicians is because they are great writers”.  Yet, mathematicians are not trained in writing nor are we trained to teaching writing and most of the writing we do is in form of a proof. The proof writing is what people like about mathematicians: they can write a rock solid argument. However, honestly, many of us dread writing, and think we are terrible writers (myself included). Which brings me to the topic of this blog, grammar checkers!

When I was writing my thesis I spent an inordinate amount of time proofreading, re-proofreading, then proofreading again. My thesis, like nearly all math documents,was written in LaTeX, which doesn’t have the built-in spell and grammar check tools. Early mistakes took significant effort to correct later. I started to think “there must be tools to do this for me” and with a little searching, I found some. 

I think it is important to have the right approach to using a grammar checker. It’s not like spell check, which will detect every little mistake and suggest replacements. Grammar checkers will catch many mistakes, but should be viewed as a smoke alarm – if a sentence sets off grammar check, it is worth looking around for smoke and potentially rewriting the sentence. It doesn’t relieve you from needing to proofread, it just can direct your attention to obvious and embarassing issues that are easy to overlook.

  • After The Deadline. In my opinion AtD is the most sophisticated of the grammar checkers, although its also the most tricky to use. Atd is based on statistical analysis of bi-grams, and catches all sorts of missing verbs, passive voice, etc. The author describes it as “saving the world one passive voice at a time”. (Full Disclosure, the author of AtD is a good friend of mine and a remarkable programmer, but AtD is a fantastic tool and I’d use it even if I didn’t know the author).
  • TextLint. TextLint speaks tex out of the box, and has the best error messages I’ve seen. My favorite was “Qualifiers are the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words.” Not only is that useful feedback on writing, its feedback presented in a way that is difficult to take personally.
  • LanguageTool. Rule based tool which was great for creating and applying a uniform style.

There are many other good grammar tools out there, including some specific to foreign languages. I haven’t investigated those in detail, but non-native english speakers make very common and predictable mistakes in writing. Common and predictable mistakes are the bread and butter of grammar checkers and if a computer can find them rather than a proofreader, all the better. Grammar checkers can also be tremendously useful enforcing a uniform style on a document. For instance, if you are a believer in the oxford comma, grammar checkers can easily find Oxford commas or tell you when you’ve forgotten them.

So, I’ve learned to love my grammar checkers. They mean less work for me, less annoying grammar mistakes for proofreaders and coauthors, and stylistically better writing. If you are struggling with an academic writing voice, its worth looking into a grammar checker. The next time I create a writing assignment, I intend to include to encourage my students to grammar check their work early and often. It lets them focus on the math and refining their understanding, rather than correcting its versus it’s errors.

And yes, I grammar checked this post, twice.


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